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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
East Ayrshire Libraries
People in story: 
Madge MacMillan
Location of story: 
Between Ireland and Scotland
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 August 2003

My story begins on Friday 1st September 1939. I was nearly 15 years old and living in Glasgow. Here I was standing at the local railway station watching hundreds of children with their mums and dads, each child wearing a name label round his or her neck.
Where were they going? What was it all about? The answer to that was that they were being evacuated. This was a new word in my vocabulary, but what did it mean? It meant that they were being separated from their parents and sent out of the city to live in the country for their own safety. The reason for this mass evacuation - our country was on the brink of war. I should have been with those children and not just an onlooker, but at the last minute my parents changed their minds and decided that our family should go to Ireland instead to live with my grandparents.
Two days later Britain declared war on Germany. Sunday 3rd September 1939 11 a.m. - we were a country at war.
Next day our family set off for Ireland. We were to stay in a cottage which my grandfather had bought for us. The younger children attended the local school and I stayed at home to help my mother. Everything went fine and we all settled down to our new way of life. My grandparents lived a short distance away and we could visit them every day, and letters from home from my father and elder sister arrived regularly.
Then tragedy struck. My beloved mother took a cerebral haemorrhage and died within a week, aged only 46 years. We were devastated. My father, sister and my mother's four sisters had travelled from Glasgow to be at her side before she passed away.
The funeral took place in Ireland and mother was laid to rest in the family plot. Now we had no choice but to return to Glasgow and the awful war, as there was no one to look after the children. Little did we know that we were about to begin a journey the memory of which would remain with us for the rest of our days.
Within a week of the funeral we set out for Belfast, a journey of over 100 miles. Here we would board the boat that would take us on the 8 hour journey to the Broomielaw in Glasgow. But alas! When we arrived at the harbour, we were informed that there was no sailing that day. There we were in a strange city which was also at war and so was blacked out - and it was the middle of November. What a predicament to be in! However, a very friendly policeman came to the rescue and ushered us to a hostel, which was run by nuns, where we spent the night and ate a hearty breakfast next morning - at a very reasonable price.
It was a cold, grey morning with an overcast sky when we left the hostel. Our little group must have looked a sorry sight as we wandered around killing time till the 4 pm sailing. Eventually, we headed for the harbour, hoping and praying that this time the boat would sail. When we arrived we were told "Yes, the boat is sailing, but there is a problem. There are a number of German U-boats in the Irish Sea.
What a shock this was! The crew had then to decide whether or not to sail as most of the passengers were children. What a decision to have to make! After all, didn't Hitler torpedo the Athenia off the coast of Ireland on the very day that war broke out? Was this to be yet another passenger ship going down with innocent and defenceless women and children? After much heart searching the Captain and crew decided to take the risk. So we sailed out of Belfast Harbour on this bleak, dismal winter night not knowing what fate had in store for us.
About 2 hours into the journey the ship's engines slowed down, then cut out completely. The lights were dimmed and a deathly silence reigned, except for the lapping of water against the hull of the ship. What was this terrifying nightmare I was caught up in? Icy fingers of fear closed around me and all I could hear was the pounding of my heart.
After about an hour of this terror the engines started up again and we were once more moving and heading further into the dark night and the sea with all its horrors. We clutched out lifejackets in expectation of the worst.
A few hours later the engines topped again and once more we sat there in the black night in the middle of the sea, surrounded by silence, in terror of being blown up by the unseen U-boat lurking beneath the waves.
The Captain came round to check all the lifejackets were secure as he tried to reassure us that we would reach Glasgow safely. What a responsibility lay on this man's shoulders. His precious cargo of helpless women and children totally dependant on him. As I looked around the other passengers I could see mothers offering words of comfort to their children on this bleak and seemingly hopeless night. Then, the engines started once again and this was to be a procedure repeated throughout the grim journey, moving for an hour sitting still for two hours. We prayed like we had never prayed before. In fact, we began to wonder if God had deserted us completely. Why had He allowed this appalling predicament to happen? Yet still we prayed on with confidence and trust. God did hear our prayer. As dawn broke we could see through the early morning mist what looked like the welcoming shores of our dear land. Our prayers had been answered and we were safely delivered home to Scotland. A journey that usually took 8 hours had taken us 19.
Although the rest of the war years brought many anxious and sad times to the people of Britain, with blackouts, air-raids, wailing sirens, food rationing, and of course the loss of many civilians as well as the loss of our brave lads who fought for freedom, for me, nothing could compare with my night of hell on that horrific journey from Belfast to Glasgow.

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